Physics and the Self-Creating Universe

In September 2012, Dr. Robert Stackpole, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, began receiving letters from his niece, who had just started college in New England. He wrote back to her on a regular basis throughout the year, helping keep her mind and heart open to belief in God in the midst of a secular university in which the truths of the faith were being questioned and challenged every day. With her permission, Dr. Stackpole shares his letters with our readers with the hope that other young people will be helped to see the truth more clearly in a confused and clouded world. Here is his ninth letter:

Hi Krystal,

It must feel good to be "heading down the home stretch," so to speak, with only your final exams left to finish of your first year at university. If it's any consolation, you're having a better start in college than I did. I failed ancient Greek in my first spring semester, ruining my hopes to be a classics major, and I had to withdraw from school for a year because I was so depressed - about that, and many other things. Not a happy time!

I understand, however, that you are having your struggles, too - not least with the subjects we have been discussing by email over the past few months. I am glad that you found helpful what I shared with you last time, but I understand why you say that you are "still not entirely sure" about the existence of God. For me, the existence of God can be rationally demonstrated "beyond a reasonable doubt," but you politely replied, "The trouble is, you have not addressed all my doubts!"

From your last letter, it appears that your physics professor succeeded in sowing some new ones. You said that in the last class of the semester, he tried to show that "physics has done away with the need for God to account for the existence of the universe." Drawing upon the new book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, he argued that we can now explain the existence of our universe by a "quantum fluctuation," the "dynamical laws" of which are presently being worked out by the experts. In short, natural laws are responsible for bringing the universe into existence out of nothing - hence, the most famous quote from the book:

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

All this is not surprising to me: Atheism is trendy at North American universities these days, so why shouldn't you find it in physics class, too? What worries me more, however, is the same thing that got you miffed: In the midst of explaining Hawking's theory, and passing out excerpts from Hawking's book to read, your prof never discussed the writings of anyone who believes in the existence of a Creator-God and critiques the "Quantum Fluctuation" idea as an explanation for the existence of the universe or multiverse. In fact, when you raised your hand and asked him about it, your prof did not seem to be aware of these critiques at all, except to dismiss them with scorn as "just the complaints of theologians." But there are plenty of leading scientists and philosophers who believe in God and have addressed these matters in depth. Sadly, your physics prof has just "buried his head in the sand" on this one.

You asked me whether I could set you on to any good articles or book chapters to "let the other side be heard." Yes, I can. In this letter I will share with you two of my favorites.

Just to be sure we are on the same page here, as I understand it, the "Quantum Fluctuation Theory" basically states that universes might come into being through the same physical process by which subatomic particles in a vacuum seem to appear out of nowhere in our universe.

There are several variants of this theory - Hawking's is only one of them - but the best response I have read to his book was by Stephen M. Barr, a professor of physics at the University of Delaware and author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. It's called "Much Ado About Nothing: Stephen Hawking and the Self-Creating Universe." I'll quote his online article at length for you, but be sure to read the whole thing when you get the chance. Barr writes:

Right up front, it must be noted that [Hawking's] idea is extremely speculative, has not yet been formulated in a mathematically rigorous way, and is unable at this point to make testable predictions. Indeed, it is very hard to imagine how it could ever be tested. It would be more accurate to call these "scenarios" rather than theories. ...

[The basic idea is that] when the number of universes changes [in a system of universes, also known as a multiverse], it is because that single overarching system has undergone a transition from one of its "quantum states" to another. Such transitions are precisely governed by dynamical laws (assumed to include the laws of quantum mechanics). These laws would govern not only how many universes there were, but the characteristics of these universes, such as how many dimensions of space they could have and what kinds of matter and forces they could contain. ...

The dramatic possibility Hawking is considering (and many others before him) is that such a system might make a transition from [a] "no-universe state" to a state with one or more universes. ...

Would it be creation ex nihilo, creation from nothing?

The answer is no. First of all, one is not starting from "nothing." The "no-universe" state in these speculative scenarios is not nothing, it is a very definite something: it is one particular quantum state among many of an intricate rule-governed system. The no-universe state has specific properties and potentialities defined by a system of mathematical laws.

An analogy may help here. A checking account is a system that has many possible states. ... Even if your checking account happens to be in the zero-dollar state one day, the checking account is nevertheless still something definite and real - not "nothing." It presupposes a bank, a monetary system, a contract between you and that bank - all being governed by various systems of rules.

Imagine the day on which your bank account is zero. Then imagine a deposit the next day that raises it to one thousand dollars. A quantum theory of the creation of the universe (in Hawking's version, or Vilenkin's, or anyone else's) is akin to this transition from an empty account to one full of money. ... The "no-universe" of [Hawking's] speculations is like the "no-dollars" in my account. It exists within the framework of a complex overarching system with specific rules. So we can see that, if true, the way of thinking put forward by Hawking does not threaten the classical doctrine of creation [of the universe by God] out of nothing [In other words, at most, Hawking's scenario merely describes how a universe or multiverse system might possibly bring another universe into being - although he has no scientific proof of this claim, of course]. ...

Non-scientists are quick to ask the obvious questions. Why a system obeying quantum mechanics, M-theory, superstring theory, or whatever laws of physics that make scientific speculations possible in the first place? Why not no system at all, with no laws at all, no anything, just blank non-being?

In fact, Hawking - and your physics professor - have fallen victim to what we would call in philosophy a "category error." "Dynamical Laws" alone cannot answer the question of why there is a universe or multiverse, because "laws" all by themselves cannot cause anything to be or to happen. Natural "laws" are merely descriptive statements: abstract numerical statements that tell you how the particles and forces in a system or universe are likely to behave if you already have one in existence.

"Abstract" equations cannot cause anything to happen or to be in the real world, because by definition they are not "concrete": they are "virtual" rather than "actual" existing things. In other words, they only exist in the mind and can only describe what exists or what possibly might exist; they cannot actually do anything on their own in the real world. Only a real person who has such abstractions in his mind can actually do or cause anything with them. Now, if there is an all-knowing, all-powerful God, and He had such laws in mind. ...

Anyway, to go back to Barr's bank account analogy: The rules of the bank cannot deposit any money into your empty checking account. Just an abstract set of bank rules could never cause anything to exist or happen at all. First you need some real concrete money somewhere to which those rules can apply, and then you need someone to cause that money obey those rules. So where does the money come from in the first place - and what causes the money to obey those rules, rather than some other set, or none at all? Barr concludes:

Physics, by its very nature, cannot answer these questions. And the funny thing is that Hawking himself is perfectly aware of this. Indeed, he said it himself in a previous book! In A Brief History of Time, Hawking observed - quite correctly - that any theory of physics is "just a set of rules and equations." And he asked, "What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the question of why there should be a universe for the model to describe." ...

As Hawking once understood, equations may turn out to be accurate descriptions of some reality, but cannot confer reality on the things they describe.

The second article I want to share with you, Krystal, can also be found on the internet, but this one is written by a friend of mine, Michael Horner, entitled "Does God Exist?" Horner effectively turns the tables on Hawking and company by showing that if we take a multi-disciplinary approach - utilizing philosophy, science, and mathematics together - we can make a strong case that a Creator-God is the best explanation for the beginning of the universe.

Again, I will quote his essay to you at length, but be sure to track down and read the whole thing. Horner clearly summarizes the approach of many philosophers and scientists who are convinced "theists" (believers in the existence of God).

Horner starts with a clear outline of his argument:
Premise 1) Whatever begins to exist must have a cause.
Premise 2) The universe began to exist
Premise 3) Therefore the universe has a cause

In defense of the first premise, Horner states that most of us have no problem accepting this belief; in other words, it is a self-evident statement (a "properly basic belief," if you remember my very first letter to you, Krystal!). Anyway, it's called the "Principle of Causation:" that there is a sufficient reason, a sufficient cause, for everything that comes into being or happens. We assume its truth in virtually every aspect of our daily lives, and our daily experience constantly confirms it and never denies it. If a fire is raging, something (lightening, a match) must have caused it; if the rain is pelting down, some confluence of environmental factors are responsible for it. It's a foundational premise both of science and philosophy. It's also one reason why a child pesters its parents with the question "why?" - and never would be satisfied with the response, "oh, there's no reason why."

This first premise is so basic to human rational thought that when scientists discovered that at the subatomic level, particles seem to appear out of nowhere in a vacuum, they did not conclude that nothing caused them to appear. They simply assumed that the particles had reappeared from somewhere else, or that something or someone caused them to pop into existence at that moment. Even Stephen Hawking assumes that some factor - natural "laws" - must be the answer to the question of why any universe exists at all. The answer can't be "there is no answer, no reason, nothing caused it." After all "nothing" is the very opposite of something, and by the basic law of logic, the Law of Non-Contradiction (remember again my first letter to you!) nothing can't behave like something! For the very definition of "nothing" is that it is a sheer void that cannot cause things to be or to happen. If a universe comes into being, therefore, it must have a real cause, a really existing "something" behind it.

By the way, that is also why phrases such as "spontaneous creation" and "self-creating universe" really make no sense at all. They are self-contradictory. There can be no such thing as a "self-creating" universe, or a "self-creating" anything else for that matter. Nothing can create itself, for a thing has to exist already in order to be able to do anything like create, "spontaneously" or otherwise.

In defense of his second premise, Horner, as I said, takes a multi-disciplinary approach:

We have both scientific confirmation and logical argument for the universe having a beginning. According to the standard Big Bang model, space, time, matter, and energy all came into existence simultaneously around 15 billion years ago.

Furthermore, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, given enough time the universe will eventually reach a state of equilibrium - a cold, dark, dead, virtually motionless state. Clearly, if the universe is without a beginning, then there has been an infinite length of time preceding this present moment. If this is the case, then the universe should already be in a state of equilibrium. This should be a cold, dark, dead, virtually motionless universe. There should be no galaxies, solar systems, stars or planets - not to mention living organisms. Since there is obviously plenty of heat, light, movement, and life, the past must be finite. The universe had a beginning.

Horner's final point, in defense of his second premise, shows that not only our universe, but any conceivable universe must have a beginning:

The third and strongest piece of support for the beginning of the universe comes from the impossibility of an infinite past. This is because an actual infinite number of anything cannot exist in the real world.

We might think that since we use the concept of infinity in mathematics there would be no problem here. But mathematicians who work with the concept of infinity do so by adopting some arbitrary rules to avoid the absurdities and contradictions that come with an infinite number of anything. And these rules don't apply to the real world. Infinity only works in the abstract realm, and only with some special rules.

To see the absurdity and contradictions of an actual infinite number of things in the real world, imagine a library having an infinite number of black books and an infinite number of green books alternating colours on the shelves and numbered consecutively on the spines.

Does it make any sense to say that there as many black books as there are black plus green books together? Not really, but that is what you would have to say if you want to claim the infinite is possible in the real world.

Suppose we withdrew all the green books. How many books are there left in the library? There would still be an infinite number of books in the library even though we just withdrew an infinite number and found a way to get them home! Suppose we withdrew the books numbered 4,5,6 ... and so on. Now how many books are left? Three! Something is surely wrong here. One time we subtract an infinite number of books and we're left with an infinite number; the next time we subtract an infinite number and we're left with three - a clear logical contradiction. Since our hypothesis leads to a contradiction, the hypothesis must be false: a library with an infinite number of books cannot exist. ...

Therefore, since a beginningless past [also] would be an actual infinite number of things (events) and since an infinite number of things cannot exist in the real world, it follows logically that the past is not infinite. The universe [or multiverse, if there is one] had a beginning.

Furthermore, an infinite past is impossible, because an actual infinite cannot be formed by adding one member after another. It's like counting to infinity-you just never get there. Just as we can never finish counting to infinity, we can never count down to a negative infinity. But to have a universe with no beginning, you would have to have an infinite number of past events leading up to the present. But this is impossible, because by implication, the present could never have come to exist.

Thus the Big Bang Theory, the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the impossibility of an infinite past all support the universe having a beginning.

Since whatever begins to exist must have a cause, it follows logically that the universe has a cause.

Horner finishes by asking what sort of universal "cause" this must be. Clearly, it must be a cause that is not bound by space, time, matter, and energy, since it brought all of these things into being. And it must be a cause powerful enough and intelligent enough to bring all things into being. So what have we got: an all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal (not bounded by time) "Spirit" (not bounded by space, matter and energy). Hmmm ... sounds suspiciously like "God," don't you think?

And if someone asks: "Then who made God? What caused God to exist?" the answer should be clear - "God is the One Being who does not need to have a cause." Remember that Horner's first premise was the self-evident Principle of Causation: "Whatever begins to exist must have a cause." But according to Horner's argument, God stands outside of time - in fact, He brought space, time, matter, and energy of the universe or multiverse into existence in the first place. If He stands outside of time, then He did not "begin to exist" at some point. Rather, He always existed. He is eternal. Therefore, He does not need to be made or caused to exist. He simply is.

However, even this argument for God, is not (to my mind at least) the strongest one of all. For it is partially based on scientific theories (the standard Big Bang model and the Second Law of Thermodynamics), and scientific theories can change, and often do. But there is another way to answer the great question of all philosophical questions, Krystal; I mean:

"Why is there something rather than nothing?"

I didn't write to you about this one yet because I knew that in order to understand it properly, you would need to learn the meaning of a bunch of philosophical terms, such as "contingency," "essence," "substance,' "accident," and "the Principle of Sufficient Reason." However, since you have been troubled by your physics profs' (and Stephen Hawking's) attempts to find a God-less reason for the existence of the universe, I will set aside some time to write to you again and share with you the answer of some of the greatest philosophers of all time, such as Thomas Aquinas and Gottfried Leibniz, and why they believed that reason can show us that there is a Creator after all.

I know you are still struggling with these things, Krystal, and that your heart and mind still may not be at rest about this God business. Remember that if there really is a God who made you and this whole universe, then He is not just something to think about, like thinking about a rock or a tree or a distant galaxy; rather, He is Someone you can actually have some kind of relationship with. As you are nearly convinced that He exists, why not reach out to Him in prayer and ask Him to make it clear to you that He does? I mean, what have you got to lose? If He doesn't exist, then it will become clear in time that you have just been talking to the wall. Big deal! I talk to the wall all the time when I am mumbling and grumbling about life's petty frustrations!

What I am trying to say is that our God-given reason is nothing more than a springboard to a relationship (I think that's one of the reasons why He gave it to us in the first place). But a springboard doesn't get you anywhere unless you jump on it. I think you are ready to jump and see what happens.

Meanwhile, my prayer for you is really no different than my constant prayer for myself. I turn to it often, especially when I am weary, tired out from life's trials and disappointments. I stole it from one of my favorite philosophers of all, the ancient philosopher Boethius:

Grant, Father, that our minds Thy august seat may scan,
Grant us the sight of true good's source, and grant us light
That we may fix on Thee our mind's unblinded eye.
Disperse the clouds of earthly matter's cloying weight;
Shine out in all Thy glory; for Thou art rest and peace
To those who worship Thee; to see Thee is our end,
Who art our source and maker, lord and path and goal.


Uncle Robert

Past Letters in the Series
• Letter #1: Can We Really Know Anything for Sure?
• Letter #2: The Problem with 'Nothing Buttery'
• Letter #3: That's the Spirit
• Letter #4: What's the Difference? Plenty, of Course.
• Letter #5: The Secret of the Human Heart
• Letter #6: A Message in the Stars
• Letter #7: The Inner Light
• Letter #8: The New Age, and Other Options

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, based in Stockbridge, Mass. He is also the author of our Divine Mercy Q&A series.

You might also like...

Dusty was bitter toward the Catholic faith, but he kept an open mind as Doc brought him to the Shrine in Stockbridge.

January 27 is the feast day of Blessed George Matulaitis. Here is the challenge he set for all of us.

Advent means "coming," from the Latin for "arrival." So how are we to prepare for Christ's arrival?